Web Exclusives

Upgrading Alentejo

by Roger Morris

Portugal has never been identified by a singular table wine region.  Alentejo, which spreads out east of Lisbon, is about to change that.

Portugal has never had an identifying table wine region, one that people immediately think of when the country’s name is mentioned.

 Say “France,” and most people who are even vaguely familiar with wines of the world will reply, “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux.”

Italy? “Chianti” or “Tuscany.”

Spain? “Rioja.” 

New Zealand means “Marlborough.”

Australia – “Barossa.”

America – “Napa Valley.” 

This does not mean that the Loire, Sonoma, Priorat or Hunter Valley aren’t all important regions or that they don’t produce superior wines. But, in advertising parlance, they do not claim the “share of mine” that the first-mentioned regions do.

Soon we may be able to add Portugal to the list of countries that have such a singular table region.  That region is Alentejo, which is rapidly becoming the country’s most-important table wine producer, although it will never dislodge the fortified wine, Port, as the first wine of any type thought of when Portugal is mentioned.

Why not Vinho Verde, Tejo or the Douro instead? While those regions all produce outstanding wines, they do not have the wide diversity of products or the following among Portugal’s wine drinkers that Alentejo enjoys. “When I started in the region, the market share of Alentejo was two percent in the country,” says João Portugal Ramos, one of Portugal’s most famous winemakers and one who makes wine in many regions. “Now, it’s 46 percent.”

Photo courtesy of CVRA.

As more wines from Alentejo flow outside of Portugal into international markets, particularly the U.S., and as more promotional campaigns are launched, the popularity that Alentejo enjoys domestically is now spreading in export markets.

The western borders of Alentejo, which means “beyond the Tejo (Taugus) River,” are only about a 90-minute drive east from Lisbon. But the region expands far beyond there. Altogether there are eight sub-regions that stretch north-south near the Spanish border across both plains and mountainous terrains.
Évora, perhaps Alentejo’s best-known sub-region, and Vidigueira are the closest to Lisbon and are the ones whose vineyard are most influenced by the Atlantic. From south to north, and nearer to Spain, are Moura, Granjoa-Amareleja, Reguengos, Redondo, Borba and Portalegre. These six sub-regions have more continental influences on their vines. Altogether, Alentejo represents about one-third of Portugal’s territory and ten percent of its vineyards.

With outside investment and winegrowing know-how, production has quadrupled
since the mid-1990s. Photo courtesy of CVRA.

The major thing that has pulled Alentejo to the top rung of Portugal’s regions is its rapid growth, spearheaded by the influx into the region of outside investment and winegrowing know-how. Production of wines has quadrupled since the mid-1990s, and there are now about 260 independent wine producers who make 57 percent of the wine. The remaining 43 percent of wine is being made in cooperatives.  Most of these wines are varietal blends, which is not surprising as Alentejo probably has more indigenous varieties than any other region in Europe. Additionally, these vines are not just curiosities, but are varieties that are widely planted.

Like most regions in Europe, Alentejo has a rich cultural history that dates back multiple centuries, including a long history of winemaking. The Romans were the first invaders and made the region part of its Lusitania province.  As they did everywhere else in Europe, they planted grapes. 

The Arab occupation was also a long one, beginning in 711 and lasting more than 500 years. During this period, when alcohol was forbidden, winemaking was eclipsed as vines were replaced with wheat. In time, Alentejo became known as Portugal’s breadbasket, and the vast plains were also home to cattle ranches.  Years later, in the 18th Century, protectionist measures from the dominant Douro region caused more headaches for wine farmers.  Finally, phylloxera was a coup-de-grâce to the region’s on-again, off-again wine production. So although Alentejo had a heritage of winemaking, it is a heritage that was often interrupted.

Renewed interest in investing in Alentejo as a premium wine producer emerged in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. This resulted in a need to classify its regions. In 2003, the eight sub-regions, formerly either independent DOC’s or IPRs, were combined to form Alentejo DOC or DOP. 

“The first regulation happened in 1988 with five divisions,” explains Francisco Mateus, Director of the The Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana (CVRA). “In 1991, these divisions increased to eight, where the majority of the vines were planted. Today, these divisions remain the same, under the appellation Alentejo (DOP), and that´s where we have 75 percent of the vines planted. The other 25 percent are planted in the region, though outside these eight divisions. They are classified as ‘Regional’ and for legal purposes as PGI.”

Australian-born winemaker David Baverstock was lured to Alentejo in 1992 to become Head Winemaker at Herdade do Esporão. Previously, he made both Port and table wines in the Douro Valley, which he still does for Esporão’s parent company. “It was mostly [grain] crops back then,” he says, “with only three or four local wineries.  But I thought, if the cooperatives are making wine this good, what could a well-financed, private winery do?”

João Portugal Ramos makes wine in many regions of Portugal. His Marquês de Borba
Reserva was once selected as the best wine on the Iberian Peninsula.
Photo courtesy of João Portugal Ramos.

Ramos, whose family was already in the wine business, began making his own wine in Alentejo about the same.  “In 1989, I bought an old house just two kilometers outside our village, Estremoz, and planted my first vineyard,” Ramos says. “Then I started the Vila Santa project, mostly for Sweden, in 1992, and at that time, I was renting a winery to do the wine. In 1996, I started to build my winery, and it was ready for the 1997 vintage.” His Marquês de Borba Reserva 1997 won a prize in 2000 in Berlin as the best wine of the Iberian Peninsula. “After that,” he says, “I hadn’t enough wine for the orders, so I bet on planting more vineyards and in increasing the winery.”

It is still unclear, however, whether Alentejo’s future will reside in it blends, or whether it will eventually evolve into the tradition of providing varietal wines that many buyers, especially in the United States, seemed to feel safer in purchasing. Some of the native varieties most planted in Alentejo include Alicante Bouchet, Touriga Nacional, Tricandeira, Alrocheiro and Catealão for the reds, and Verdelho, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Roupeiro and Antão Vaz for the whites.  These are not familiar labels in American wine stores, and hence would take additional educational efforts.

“One of the biggest Alentejo wine’s riches is variety,” says Gabriella Fialho, Export and Tourism Manager for Cartuxa. “We can find both red and white grape varieties with a great potential, both with small and big producers.” Fialho says over the past few years Cartuxa has planted an additional 200 hectares of grapes – land is plentiful in Alentejo – built a new winery and plans an expansion of its organic grapes. The Cartuxa and Ramos wineries primarily make blends, whereas Esporão produces a mix of blends and varietals. However, Esporão’s  Baverstock says he thinks “blends, nearly always” work out better in Alentejo than do straight varietals. Both Ramos and Baverstock say they think Alicante Bouschet (shown) has great potential as a varietal.

A diversity of varieties is also helped by the diversity of soils in Alentejo, which vary greatly – “from schist and sandy loam to calcareous and limestone clay,” Ramos says – as does elevation and winemaking styles.  Rainfall is low, and it seldom rains at harvest, ensuring that grapes suffer less from mildew. “Due to the construction of Alqueva Lake [southeast of Évora], the biggest artificial lake in Europe, the mornings now in Alentejo are fresher than in the past, and the air humidity is higher,” Ramos says.

The lake also provides activities that lure tourists from Lisbon and elsewhere to journey through Alentejo, so winegrowers also are banking heavily on wine tourism. Accordingly, modern hotels and fancy restaurants are sprouting up throughout the area.  Baverstock says Esporão had 30,000 visitors to its winery and restaurant in 2016. Ramos says his winery had a 75 percent uptick in visits during the same period.  “In the last 10 years, the number of tourists in Alentejo grew 30 percent,” says CVRA’s Mateus, “but those who visited wineries and our local Alentejo Wine Route grew 100 percent.”

What of the future?

“The major issue is sustainability,” says Baverstock. “Climate change has brought hotter years with challenges to fruit ripening and harvest dates, but also some unpredictability with more spring rain, so more humidity and disease pressure.” He also sees winemaking changes, including “less oak overall and better use of oak, i.e., less American oak.”

Sustainability will be a key issue in Alentejo's future. Photo courtesy of CVRA.

Ramos sees the urgent need to conserve water in the vineyard and winery as part of the overall sustainability push. And he also sees winemaking changes. “In our case, we are investing more and more in marble lagares [traditional open vats] to ferment our top reds, we are planting more native grapes varieties, starting to ferment some reds in barrels and, for the more commercial wines, we are slowly starting to decrease the alcohol degree, especially on the whites.”

Mateus sees marketing as both a challenge and an opportunity. “The biggest challenge is to increase the worldwide recognition of the wines of Alentejo,” he says, “and for that we have to show our wines to the world and export more. Today 30 percent of the sales are exports, and we want to reach 40 percent by 2020.  We are having a good progress in the US market – up six percent last year – increasing the number of companies exporting, investing more in promotion and working closely with an American agency that is doing a fine job in communication. [We] need to keep it rolling and look for better results.”

Including the wine region of when someone says “Portugal.”

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